Wednesday, 31 March 2021

The Devil is doubt - or does doubt drive curiosity? Lent 2021, Day 43

Let's imagine, many decades from now, you are lying on your deathbed. You know that it cannot be far off now. What are you thinking? Are you reconciled to your biological life reaching its natural end and oblivion approaching, a final, ultimate switching off of your conscious experience? Or will you be secure in your belief that on dying, God will take you to His side, and your soul will continue to experience awareness for eternity, as an immaterial continuation of your conscious being - and there in Heaven, you will still be you? 

Or something else - that your consciousness will slip free of one biological body and "slip inside this house as you pass by" (to quote the 13th Floor Elevators)?

Certainty is crucial at this juncture. One's final moments (may they be conscious!) are not a time for doubt. Existential anguish in face of death suggests you've left it too late (unless death comes too early - so powerfully portrayed by Zbigniew Cybulski at the end of Andrzej Wajda's film version of Ashes and Diamonds). The desire to hang onto your ego in face of death is universal, an unwillingness to let go - either to lose it into nothingness, or else to have it stripped from your consciousness so all that's left are occasional memories of subjective experiences - qualia - that will in future haunt another being. Neither are appealing to the mainstream Western mind.

Yet my lifelong experiences of incongruous memories of another place at a prior time to my own give me a certain confidence. A confidence that by seeking further, that by expanding my knowledge of the frontiers of science, neuroscience, particle physics, astrophysics and philosophy, that confidence will be deepened rather than weakened. My personal doubts - when faced with powerful arguments from reductionist-materialists - are weaker today than in years gone by. The reductionist-materialists' arguments are weakening as science learns ever more about that which it knows it doesn't know. 

New ideas, new theories cast doubt on what was once scientific consensus, that there's nothing beyond matter, nothing above the laws of physics. These new ideas - such as science-based panpsychism or quantum-based consciousness theories - are to me Good News. They feel right to me. The click with my intuitive observations about qualia memories. My curiosity eggs me on. 

We should all question orthodoxy - be it religious dogma or our outdated materialist cause-and-effect physics, rather than passively accepting either as a given. We should listen to the inner voice that seeks answers to our intuitive notions about purpose and reason for existing, for being aware, for our subjective experience.

I often think back to my father's final years; our walks on Sunday to the Polish chapel on Courtfield Gardens. He never talked about his faith; we'd walk to Mass talking about his observations - what he saw on the street, the changing seasons, his physical condition - and we'd walk home talking about the same. He guarded his beliefs well, to his death; in church, he'd take Holy Communion each week, and speak all the responses with the congregation, taking an active part in Mass - but his subjective experience of it remained his own.

Was he beset by doubts? I really don't know. Is he today with Jesus - or will a child one day be wondering why they are experiencing anomalous memories of the Warsaw Uprising and postwar London?

Am I beset by doubts? -  Certainly less than I used to be. The notion that I'm deluding myself and creating a false narrative recedes as I learn to parse my metaphysical experiences with ever-increasing sincerity and accuracy. When the *PAFF* moments happen, I will continue to analyse them based on my ever-improving understanding of science and the philosophy of consciousness.

This time last year:
Body and soul

This time three years ago:
Religion and Happiness - a Lenten summary

This time four years ago:
Health and fitness in a Quarter of Abstinence

This time eight years ago:
Easter Sunday in the snow

This time 11 years ago:  
Five weeks into Lent

Tuesday, 30 March 2021

Actively seeking Understanding: Lent 2021, Day 42

Am I seeking God - or am I seeking Understanding? The latter, to be honest - names, labels don't help much. I am guided primarily by instinct, by what I intuit about the metaphysical. It is an in innate, lifelong drive to understand my deepest, most sincerely held feelings about the Infinite and Eternal. And it is something that neither reductionist classical science nor organised religion can answer.

I know I am searching in generally the right direction. I also know I'm a long way away in terms of absolute azimuth heading and distance. And I believe that this distance is far, far greater than can be measured in numbers of successive lifetimes. Progress is slow; sometimes it comes by way of unbidden insights - channelling of Universal truths, in those moments when I am tuned in and receiving. Sometimes progress can come from reading a book or just a short article about a new discovery or spiritual insight. A new line of inquiry comes along, a new door swings slightly open, revealing light from beyond.

Who are my gurus, my mentors? I have none - if I read something by a philosopher or scientist that furthers my understanding, I'd be looking to nuance that rather than try to deepen it. Guides I do have - people along the way in my life who occasionally make a suggestion that opens a new door to new vistas. My brother is chief among this group of guides in terms of volume of suggestions and ideas. The frontiers of science - at the subatomic and galactic levels - and philosophy - in particular the philosophy of mind - these are the places to look for those keys that can unlock further doors. Or just find doors you hadn't yet known existed. 

The study of religious texts is a worthwhile pursuit, as long as you are open to looking at those texts not just literally or as metaphor, but as myths arising from our collective consciousness over the millennia. Seeking answers at the meta-level. And philosophy, the 'why' of why we exist, can be the ultimate meta-level.

My broad advance along many fronts will not be rapid, but it will be joined up. I am a generalist rather than a specialist. I am holding out for a long life because I'm a slow and plodding learning, and a breadth of learning requires decades more growth in understanding. Hence, I am grateful for my health and try not to allow complacency to creep up on me - "because last year was good, next year will be good too." There is, I strongly feel, a supernatural connection between will and outcome - maybe quantum physics will be able to explain that one day.

In the meantime, Lent is rapidly approaching the end; four days left, and a summing up will soon be in order.

This time last year:
Anacyclosis - what goes round, comes round

This time three years ago:
Winter returned for a morning

This time four years ago:
Globalisation and the politics of identity

This time seven years ago:
More photos from Edinburgh

This time eight years ago:
Edinburgh continues to fascinate

This time nine years ago:
Ealing in bloom - early spring

This time 13 years ago:
Swans arrive in Jeziorki

Monday, 29 March 2021

The Holiest of Holies: Lent 2021, Day 41

Reverence towards the spiritual has been on the wane ever since mankind got its head around Newtonian mechanics - and the idea that every cause must have a natural, physical effect. Supernatural causes = superstition. Since the Enlightenment took hold in Europe, people have been drifting away from organised religion in ever-increasing numbers as science paved the way for the machines that mass-produce the goods that our materialist societies revel in.

Profanities were once chiefly religious in origin; which we still see in euphemisms like 'jeepers' or 'gee' for 'Jesus'. The name of God, guarded in Judaism and used with care (hence the usage 'G_d', or substitution of Yahweh with HaShem - literally 'the name') is seen as possessing a supernatural power in itself. Taking the Lord's name in vain - using it disrespectfully - is in breach the Second Commandment according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

We've become far more materialistic as a species; the last three centuries of our development have been spent pushing back on the supernatural, replacing it all the while with empirically-proven scientific fact, but a respect for faith still lingers. Intrinsic human kindness, politeness, an understanding of the need to get on with people with different worldviews, prevents us from igniting conflicts against those of a different faith - or indeed of no faith. How different, then, from the times of the Thirty Years' War in which millions of Catholics and Protestants died fighting over matters of religious doctrine. These mattered far more than national sovereignty or borders.

This is a clear sign of human progress, growing tolerance on issues of theology ('Islamic State' excepted), though inter-communal strife still tends to play up religious differences.

Even if we are deeply religious, we are less likely to take offence these days at casual derogatory remarks aimed at faiths unless they are intended to cause offence. The notions of blasphemy (bluźnierstwo) and sacrilege (świętokradztwo) are linked; interestingly the most recent high-profile blasphemy cases in the UK were over 40 years ago were to do with gay rights; the common-law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel were abolished in England and Wales in 2008. In Poland, a case was brought to court against three LGBT activists accused of offending religious sentiment by depicting the Black Madonna of Częstochowa with a rainbow halo. All three were acquitted by a Polish court earlier this month.

Sacrilege is somewhat different in Catholic countries where its main meaning is the misuse of the Holy Sacraments - taking Communion without having received Penance is considered sacrilegious under canonical law. In England and Wales, it is more to do with offences against church property, such as burglary, or urinating on consecrated ground. Sacrilege was removed as a separate category of crime from the statute books in 1861.

So what would spark me off in a spiritual controversy? I'd certainly not get irate about such matters! Brexit, Trump. Putin, Xi Jinping all get me going, but politics apart, on issues of human spirituality, religion - religions - I'd be more than happy to engage with a debate with atheist or fundamentalist, although there's little sense in debating an entrenched position. Anyone who can't move on from "the word of God as expressed in the Bible/Koran/Torah is absolute and immutable" or "there's no God, no afterlife, get over it" is a difficult interlocutor.

Let us be thankful that customs have moved on since Biblical days!

This time last year:
"On my planet, there is no disease"

This time three years ago:
A Brief History of Time review (Part II)

This time six years ago:
"We don't need no [tertiary] education"

This time seven years ago:

Arthur's Seat - Edinburgh's urban mountain

This time eight years ago:

This time nine years ago:
A wee taste of Edinburgh

This time 12 years ago:
Forward go the clocks

Sunday, 28 March 2021

Medicine, mindfulness and miracles: Lent 2021, Day 40

In clinical trials 38% of those given the AstraZeneca vaccine reported at least one side-effect such as pain at the injection site, a headache or brief fever. And so did 28% of those who got a placebo injection. Of the 18-55 year-olds given the placebo during the Pfizer vaccine clinical trials, 33% reported mild or moderate fatigue, and 33% mild or moderate headaches, compared to 34% and 33% respectively of the same age-group who received Pfizer's Covid jab*.

WOW! The clinical-trial subjects literally received an injection of water - and around a third of them claimed to have suffered side-effects!

This is the nocebo effect at work - the placebo effect's evil twin; once again it confirms the power of the mind over the body.

We are easily led. We can convince ourselves that things are subjectively good or bad, and this feeds into our samopoczucie positively or negatively. In medicine, there is a saying: "There's no such thing as a healthy person. Only undiagnosed diseases." This is Schrodinger's Disease - until a doctor of medicine takes a peek, you're well and ill at the same time. And while many diseases can only be cured with timely medical interventions, those deemed to be 'of unknown etiology' are more likely to respond to the power of a positive mind-set.

Steve Jobs and Bob Marley both succumbed to cancer thinking that they can overcome it with fruit juice and marijuana respectively, rather than conventional oncological treatment - they were both wrong. But the story of Wilko Johnson (recounted on this blog a few days ago), suggests that miracles can happen. Was a misdiagnosis a miracle? Can miracles happen retrospectively? Is there a role for the supernatural in healing? Can gratitude and appreciation of life help? We need balance; we cannot dismiss science out of hand - nor can dismiss the power of mind over matter simply because it cannot be quantified by science.

Linking health and happiness with the celestial order, the flow, the Unfolding, we should express our gratitude for what we have, and in a grateful state of mind ask for health and happiness for ourselves and for our loved ones.

Monism means considering the entire Universe, all things visible and invisible, the material and the spiritual as one - and this requires a holistic view of mind and spirit. The effect of spiritual will on our well-being is important. A life in balance means that bodily health and spiritual well-being should be ignored, nor should they be obsessively pursued. Conscious awareness of both plays an important role.

An example to me of this effect is my ongoing success in keeping my blood pressure optimal without having to take pills. The average of last week's daily readings at 110/76, a year ago it was 113/79. Walking, weight-training, exercising, healthy diet, and - during Lent - no alcohol. But there is no room for complacency; no letting up - the long-term aim being a healthy body in which a mindful consciousness can reach for new understanding and insights on the infinitely long road from Zero to One.

Belief in the power of belief. If you don’t believe that a positive outlook can improve your health or slow down disease – then the chances are it won’t. If you do believe in the power of belief, then there is a greater chance that it will help. Up to one-third greater, looking at the Covid vaccine results!

* Date from this presentation, slide 17

This time last year:
Divine intervention

This time two years ago:
Oblique views of Warsaw from the air

This time seven years ago
On Calton Hill, Edinburgh

This time eight years ago:
Doomsday - the Last Judgment

This time nine years ago:
Sunny Scotland at 23.9C 

This time 11 years ago:

Saturday, 27 March 2021

Praise the Sun God: Lent 2021, Day 39

Is it an accident that Lent, a period of fasting and reflection, occurs as winter yields to spring? The 40 days (the Catholic Church doesn't include Sundays in the time of fasting) are meant to symbolise Jesus's 40 days in the desert, during which time he is tempted by Satan. [Did Jesus take Sundays off? Or did He do the full 40 days straight?] Lent coincides with the hungriest time of year in the Northern Hemisphere, when the crops are being sown; a good time, therefore, to limit society's intake of calories. 

Easter, being a moveable feast, determined by the Computus, can fall on any Sunday between 22 March and 25 April. Weather can be particularly capricious at this time of year; in my 25 springs in Warsaw, the latest snow has fallen on 4 May - but then last winter there was hardly any.

What is immutable is the constantly lengthening day, be it wet or dry, warm or cold. The light brings joy; last autumn's Hammer of Darkness is now a memory - and the next one, a distant dread somewhere beyond the sensual pleasure of the coming summer.

Exposure to sunlight promotes the release of the hormone serotonin, which boosts mood helps you feel calm and focused. Sunlight is also responsible for the body's generation of Vitamin D, critical for your immune system, and for strengthening bones. Consistent exposure to sunlight can strengthen it, reducing the risk of illness, infections, some cancers, and mortality after surgery. Too much sun can lead to skin cancers. Getting the balance right is, as ever, critical. Taking the time to go for a walk to catch the sun is a good idea.

Whatever it was that weakened me for six days in the middle of this month has passed; the dry cough almost gone. I'm back to walking every day, back to doing a full set of daily exercises. Before the clouds rolled in from the west, this afternoon was beautiful, with temperatures hitting 19C - two-layers weather. I walked and I walked - over 13,000 paces, with 41 minutes at moderate to high intensity.

Appreciation. The past five months have - with some exceptional days along the way - been dark, damp, dismal and cold. Gratitude. The sun is back to warm us, to light our world, to draw the fullest range of colour and shade from what sulks under leaden skies for most of the winter. We feel better physically and psychologically. Christmas - Yuletide - is there to save us from the darkest days of the year. Easter is a celebration of the returned Sun. We should be grateful.

"The Sun is God," J.M.W. Turner is said to have uttered on his deathbed. The Sun is a part of God, most definitely.

This time last year:
Divine Inspiration: God and Artists

This time two years ago:
This time last year:

This time three years ago:
A Brief History of Time reviewed

This time four years ago:
Eyes without a face

This time five years ago:
London blooms in yellow

This time six years ago:
London's Docklands: a case-study in urban regeneration

This time seven years ago:
Scotland and its language 

This time eight years ago:
Death, our sister

This time ten years ago:
The iconic taste of Marmite

This time 11 years ago:

This time 12 years ago:

Friday, 26 March 2021

Will we ever understand what's inside the atom? Lent 2021, Day 38

News from the Large Hadron Collider that a new subatomic particle may have been found has hardly hit the headlines. A hypothetical particle called a leptoquark has appeared as an unexpected difference in how bottom (or beauty) quarks decay to create electrons or muons. [Skip over the detail if you must, I intend to leap from the physical to the metaphysical, from the science to the philosophy of it all...]

Four days ago, an article was submitted to the database, entitled Test of Lepton Universality in Beauty-Quark Decays. Here's the summary:

"The Standard Model of particle physics currently provides our best description of fundamental particles and their interactions. The theory predicts that the different charged leptons - the electron, muon and tau - have identical electroweak interaction strengths. Previous measurements have shown a wide range of particle decays are consistent with this principle of lepton universality. This article presents evidence for the breaking of lepton universality in beauty-quark decays, with a significance of 3.1 standard deviations, based on proton-proton collision data collected with the LHCb detector at CERN's Large Hadron Collider. The measurements are of processes in which a beauty meson transforms into a strange meson with the emission of either an electron and a positron, or a muon and an antimuon. If confirmed by future measurements, this violation of lepton universality would imply physics beyond the Standard Model, such as a new fundamental interaction between quarks and leptons."

Wow - "physics beyond the Standard Model!". Since the 1970s, this is how science currently sees the matter and forces at work inside the atom. When I was learning physics at school, this was all theory; what was then the current orthodoxy was that atoms were made up of a nucleus containing protons (carrying a positive charge) and neutrons (carrying no charge), around which were 'shells' of electrons (carrying a negative charge). This we could get our head around. Since then, the Standard Model has emerged, based around different sorts of quarks, leptons and bosons.

[Note that the beauty quark is called the bottom quark here, its more common name]

The existence of the quark was postulated by physicist Murray Gell-Mann in 1964, which he named after a reference to the novel Finnegans Wake, by James Joyce ("Three quarks for Muster Mark!" Book 2, episode IV). [My brother bought me a first edition of the book for Christmas, looking it up, the page (383) had not been cut open in the production process, forcing me to reach for a razor blade to gently part pages 382 and 383 for the very first time since it was printed in 1939. Coincidence!]

Anyway - the Standard Model is, as I've mentioned several times over the years, incomplete. It doesn't include gravity, nor dark matter. It doesn't square with Einstein's theory of relativity, which works fine at the galactic level, but not within the atom. Our understanding of the very fabric of matter is becoming increasingly speculative.

If confirmed, the results of the CERN discovery could be, to quote this week's The Economist, "the much-sought crack into which researchers can insert a metaphorical crowbar to prise the Standard Model open and reveal what it is hiding—perhaps a fifth force of nature to go alongside gravity, electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces."

I'm holding out for science to discover consciousness as an immanent manifestation in the material world - consciousness present across the Universe, a consciousness that's evolving, growing in scale, to something that we are familiar with, that we experience - but something that will keep on evolving as our Universe unfolds.

As a Monist, I hold that there isn't a material world and a entirely separate spiritual world inhabited by God and souls; there's one Universe containing 'all things visible and invisible'; God is of that - All in God, God in All.

Hawkwind's Quark, Strangeness and Charm from 1977, a time when all science was on the cusp of solving all of nature's secrets...

This time last year:
Time - religion and metaphysics

This time five years ago:
Easter Everywhere, Lent reaches an end

This time nine years ago:
Sunset shots, first bike ride to work

This time 11 years ago:
Poland's trains ran faster before the war

This time 12 years ago:
Winter in spring: surely this must be the last snow?

This time 13 years ago:
Surely THIS must be the last snow?

Thursday, 25 March 2021

Glimpses into past lives? Lent 2021, Day 37

And lo! I dreamt... I was a young man - hardly a man, maybe 17, 16 even... It was early spring 1831 and the Polish insurgency against the Russians was under way, with skirmishes occurring here and there. I was wearing a Napoleonic-style military uniform, bloodied and torn by brambles; I'd lost my hat and musket after the defeat of my unit by a much larger Russian formation. I had managed to escape from the resulting slaughter. 

I had made my way to a nearby estate owned by good friends of my parents. I'd been there last summer - wearing the same uniform - for a ball attended by the children of local minor nobility. I had danced with beautiful girls - and now here I was again, dressed in tatters, desperately seeking sanctuary from the Russians who were scouring the country for insurgents. Countess __________ greeted me and said that they would indeed hide me from the soldiers should they come looking, she bade her servants to attend to my wounds. I felt anguish, fear, disgrace; I felt that I am unfairly jeopardising the lives of these good people. I felt guilt at their willingness to help me. I felt the utter disappointment of seeing action for the first time, expecting glory and instead being painfully humiliated. Had I been a coward to run? Above all, I felt despair at the prospects for my fatherland, which just a few weeks earlier looked so promising - a restoration of independence after 35 years of Tsarist rule.

I woke up; the emotions I'd experienced in the dream were so real, so vivid, so intense; it was a relief to be back in 2021.

A rare dream, one of those that ticked the boxes of the Three Unities of Time, Place and Action, rather than being full of disjunctive cognition, where people, places and things blend together and action is illogical.

Now, I have long felt an atavistic, metaphysical link to the lands to the north-east of Poland's current borders - in particular the north-west fringes of the Pripet Marshes, but I'd felt by parsing my exomnesial qualia experiences of this time and place that "I" had been there, though not as the scion of a noble family. Instead, I have hitherto seen myself as a good-natured peasant who was neither Polish nor Lithuanian nor Russian but 'from there' who fished and hunted duck around those times, who went to the Orthodox church on Orthodox feast days and to the Catholic church on Catholic feast days, generally kept out of trouble by keeping a low profile and avoiding the gaze of his betters. The connection in time and place are strong - but as to the person?

Marais de Pinsk - Pripet Marshes on a French map, 1880

This was an intensely puzzling dream, one of those outliers well beyond the usual canon of my dream-themes and locations. In recent days I have dreamt of my old offices in London (twice); Covent Garden, London; a line of warehouses on the Chicago waterfront in the 1930s, Katowice, West Ealing, Poznań, Leamington Spa; Kraków, 1950s London. Here we have a time and place that has never featured in any dream I've had, only in flashbacks usually brought about by landscapes - wide sandy tracks between silver birch forest, flooded water meadows at a river's edge, moonlight through the trees. But here - a nobleman's mansion, the clothes, the period - nothing out of place yet unfamiliar. I have never been here before in my dreams.

It's good to keep a daily dream diary - it opens doors to new possibilities.

[I wrote a short story set in the aftermath of the 1863 rising, which strongly alluded to 1831, ten years ago. Link to it here.]

This time last year:

This time three years ago:
New bus stop for Karczunkowska

This time four years ago:
"Jeziorki bogged down in railway mud"

This time five years ago:
Ideas, and how they take hold

This time six years ago:
Russian eyes peering down on Jeziorki

This time 13 years ago:
The fate of urban wetlands?

Wednesday, 24 March 2021

One life is not enough: Lent 2021, Day 36

We are on a pilgrimage; moving out of ignorance, out of the darkness and cold, feeling our way, stumbling along towards enlightenment. We come into this world knowing nothing - learning each day, gaining insights and experience, solving some problems, encountering new ones - yet knowing that we still ultimately know little. 

Driven by curiosity, we are a part of the great unfolding of the Universe. We see this process happening around us, we observe its ever-changing nature. Our understanding - personal understanding as well as the collective understanding of us as a species - inches forward. But is it growing fast enough?

Humanity progresses in fits and starts. Centuries of stasis, then bursts of rapid development. We're developing faster than ever before in our history, and that acceleration is set to grow. Many have predicted that we'll come out of the pandemic to witness a period of transformation as great as the Renaissance (which followed the Black Death) and the Enlightenment (which followed the Great Plague). I am convinced that Homo sapiens will make two steps forward - before making the inevitable step back a century or two later, only to make another two steps forward again.

The road before us is eternally long. Looking back, things are better than they were 100 years, 200 years ago for most people on this planet, compared to how their lives would have looked living in the same place back then. But what's that on a scale of 13.8 billion years from Big Bang or 4.5 billion years of Planet Earth? Catastrophes cosmic, man-made or natural notwithstanding, the odds are that that the next 100 years will be even better for us as a species. But we'll not be around...

Our biological selves won't. Our egos won't. But for the curious, the observant - the sensitive to the tides of time - the old souls who want to see - might just possibly will themselves back for another crack at this marvel called life. Flashes, glimpses of this live might pervade their consciousness in the next; familiar yet anomalous memories, atavistic visions and 'desires to return'... OK, many of us don't experience this, but I predict that coming generations will have more such 'old souls' among their numbers. 

My generation, brought up in the West on a blend of Christianity and Newtonian materialism, is far less likely to buy into any notion of reincarnation than anyone growing up into Hinduism or Buddhism. And future generations whose science lessons will include that which we don't know (reconciling quantum mechanics with the Theory of Relativity, the nature of Dark Matter and Dark Energy, the nature of consciousness - is it an emergent phenomenon or an intrinsic property of matter?) will also be more open to the metaphysical and supernatural.

The vectors for consciousness are therefore of supreme interest to me. Are our consciousnesses - our souls - locked into one short-lived body, or can they return to forever (to quote the name of the band of recently-deceased jazz musician Chick Corea) to experience life again? I think so - on the basis of my lifelong and frequent exomnesian experiences.

If science begins to open up avenues of research that go to show that consciousness indeed pervades the Universe as a basic property, then it is entirely possible that it can exist in more than one biological form. But how do time and entropy fit into all this?

One life is not enough. If you seek, it is possible that your consciousness - stripped of ego - shall indeed taste it again.

This time last year:
The Secret and the Hidden

This time three years ago:
Afterlife - a myriad possibilities, after the Magic has returned

This time four years ago:
Warsaw photo catch-up (Rotunda going down)

This time five years ago:
Conscious of being conscious

This time six years ago:
New road and retail

This time eight years ago:
Warsaw's Northern Bridge - its name and local democracy

This time ten years ago:
What's Polish for 'commuter'?

This time 11 years ago:
Four weeks into Lent

Tuesday, 23 March 2021

The metaphysics of coincidence: Lent 2021, Day 35

They come thick and fast; they're impossible to overlook - coincidences. "A coincidence is a remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances that have no apparent causal connection with one another". A key word here is 'remarkable' - something that bids you to make a remark about it. It is sufficiently out-of-the-ordinary as a coupling of unrelated events that make you feel urged to tell someone about it, without expecting mockery.

I mentioned physicist Richard Feynman in the context of coincidence and his famous quote "On my way to the lecture, I saw a car with the license plate ARW 357. Can you imagine? Of all the millions of license plates in the state, what was the chance that I would see that particular one tonight? Amazing!"

What would have been amazing - and maybe Prof Feynman would have come to a different conclusion - had he seen ARW 357 parked next to BSX 468 and noticed that each letter/digit was advanced exactly by one? But even had he seen these two cars and noticed the numbers - would it have meant anything to his life?

I mentioned in yesterday's post Wilko Johnson referencing William Wordsworth The Daffodils and Shakespeare's "To die to sleep, to sleep perchance to dream" quote, and then discovered that I had referred to both in my blog post of exactly one year early. What are the chances?

Well, an obvious link is the grammar-school English Literature curriculum taught in the 1960s and '70s in England included Shakespeare and Wordsworth, and so both of us would have had been exposed to them as teenagers; Wilko also (briefly) taught English at school before giving up teaching for rock'n'roll. 

But still - on that same day exactly a year apart? I'd been looking for a YouTube link for the whole of Oil City Confidential, the Julien Temple documentary about Dr Feelgood, which I wanted to see after having watched Mark Kimmel's documentary So You Wanna Be A Rock'n'Roll Star? - same musical genre from the same part of Britain. Instead, I ended up watching The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson and was swiftly drawn into it. Serendipity, rather than blind chance.

Today, stepping into my study/bedroom on my działka, the first book I noticed on my bookshelf (while looking for The Tao of Physics, by Fritjof Capra) was Arthur Koestler's The Roots of Coincidence. It's been a long while since I last read it - 30 or more years ago. Koestler was somewhat sidetracked by a search (fashionable at the time, in the early 1970s) for extrasensory perception (ESP). I personally consider the case for ESP to be extremely weak - and applying Newtonian tools to find what is essentially a quantum result is futile.

So a web, a lattice of coincidence exists, and these intersections should be seen as no more - but also no less - than a 'stop' sign for our conscious minds. Pull up that rushing train of thought for a second, and ponder. Seek meaning, seek relevance, look out for useful hints But don't expect Profound Insights or Clues Where To Find The Treasure; rather take the opportunity to pause and look around. 

Several years ago, my son, travelling to university on three successive weekends, had the same seat-number on his intercity train three times in a row - carriage 12, seat 12. (His birthday, coincidentally, is the third of December. One and two equal three.) However, no combination of 1s, 2s and 3s produced any winning lottery number that week, nor in coming weeks did anything unusual or significant involving those numbers occur to him. The coincidence should be seen as just that - a coincidence.

You'll notice them if you are observant, but then you need to apply a bit of Occam's Razor and all-round intelligence to them. I see two women wearing an eye patch over their left eyes, two days in a row. What does it mean? Watch out for eye accidents! Take particular care for a few days; build up your muscle-memory in the eye-protection field!

Don't go out of your way to look for coincidences; but when you do notice them - don't ignore them!

This time two years ago:
The People vs. Brexit

This time four years ago:
A leader for our times

This time five years ago:
Social justice - the Church and inequality

This time six years ago:
Google Street View comes to Poland

Monday, 22 March 2021

The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson: Lent 2021, Day 34

In January 2014, 66-year-old Wilko Johnson, former guitarist with legendary pub-rock band Dr Feelgood, is told by a doctor that he has pancreatic cancer and 10 months to live. Or 12 with chemotherapy. He decides to forego treatment and face his last months in the presence of a film camera. The result is director Julien Temple's The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson (2015).

Temple's directorial debut was the Sex Pistols' The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle (1980); in 2009 he directed a documentary about Dr Feelgood, Oil City Confidential*.  On hearing of Wilko's diagnosis and imminent demise, Temple set out to document the final months of the guitarist's life.

The resulting film is a work of wonder, of joy, of profound philosophical importance. Faced with the prospect of death, Wilko Johnson resigns himself to eternal oblivion. Being an atheist, he dismisses hope in any conscious life after bodily death. This sharpens his senses, his experience of the here and now; he begins to notice the everyday, the commonplace, and find beauty in it. This is purest existentialism.

There is no sadness, no self-pity; Wilko radiates a sense of a man who has lived a life that fulfilled his human potential. It is clear that he is an intelligent and mindful human being, observant, sensitive to the Universe (literally - he is an amateur astronomer), 

I can't help thinking that Wilko is an old soul - what else would draw a young man from a working-class home in Canvey Island  to make it through to university to study ancient Icelandic? It is clear to me at least that this extremely well-read man has a passion for times past that suggests some kind of a spiritual, metaphysical, supernatural connection with History, across History.

In a particularly moving part of the film, Wilko recounts the death from cancer, ten years earlier, of his childhood sweetheart and wife of 40 years, Irene. Painful memories that throw into relief the notions of human loneliness, togetherness and solitude.

The film intersected with music, film and literature that feature in my canon. Blind Willie Johnson's Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground, Thomas Tallis's Spem in Alium, Ralph Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, Interstellar Overdrive by Pink Floyd, William Wordsworth's The Daffodils and Hamlet's 'to sleep, perchance to dream, aye, there's the rub' [both quoted have been several times on this blog], clips from Tarkovsky's Stalker and Eduard Artemyev's haunting soundtrack to that film. References like this are close to home, they feel to me like a justification that I've been searching in the right places. And of course, Bergman's Seventh Seal, overarching the whole film, with Wilko as the mediaeval knight playing chess against Death - also played by himself.

Much of the film is shot in Canvey Island, a place that drew me there many times as a young man to photograph it in black and white. The unique atmosphere of the refinery island, lying below sea level, vulnerable to flooding yet a pleasure destination for the East End, is beautifully captured.

It's full-length feature, but it is worth every minute of your time watching something as deeply moving as this. If your time is short, please spend just one minute and 12 seconds of your life watching from 04:00 to 05:12. It encapsulates the Glory of Being Alive. Watch it, do. And as I watched it, I thought that it was no coincidence that serendipity brought this film to my notice during this Lent.

I won't tell you the ending. But that too ticks all my boxes.

* Oil City Confidential to be filed alongside So You Wanna Be A Rock'n'Roll Star?, Mark Kimmel's documentary about another Canvey Island pub-rock bank, the Kursaal Flyers).

This time last year:
[PAFF! And up comes Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and William Wordsworth's Daffodils and Hamlet's To sleep/to die again! In a post exactly year ago today! This is an utterly mind-blowing coincidence!]

This time two years ago:
Peace of Mind

This time six years ago:
The Name of God and the Consciousness of Everything

This time eight years ago:
The Church and Democracy

Sunday, 21 March 2021

Connecting with the Metaphysical: Lent 2021, Day 33

A bit of that 'how much spirituality do we need?' in this post - the need to connect, the hear feedback - from that part of the world that's closed to our five senses, yet we feel exists. If the matter of 'God' is primarily one of definition, and that's down to individual preference for how we seek to understand All That Is Above Us, that which exceeds mankind's capacity for understanding.

My first need is to express gratitude for life, for health, for consciousness. I have habitualised this into my daily routine of brushing my teeth. Should I catch myself forgetting to do so having left the bathroom, I return, pick up the brush, and having another go - this time with gratitude. It is also present as I drop off to sleep. There are many things that I should really recall as I fall asleep - but there's not the time, as I am blessed with the ability to switch off very quickly. It's different in the middle of the night. A night's sleep usually consists of four or five sleep cycles, each of between 90 and 135 minutes, each ending with a rapid-eye movement (REM) phase during which the most vivid dreams occur. Usually the second or third cycle (around 2am/3am) is followed by a short period of insomnia. And it is this time that should be put to use in either meditation or prayer.

Prayers for the wellbeing of our planet, our tiny corner of the Universe; prayers for peace, understanding and cooperation. Pretty soon, I've nodded off again.

Do not overlook the importance of Coincidence. I notice them, and roll them around my mind for a while, rather like a nice bogie before flicking it away. Physicist Richard Feynman roundly rejected our irrational tendency to mistake randomness for coincidence and coincidence for meaning. I don't. Just don't read too much into it - see it as a pointer rather than a forecast. Last year, while out walking on the other side of the tracks I was considering when the pandemic would end, and the Unbidden Voice replied - "When you have learnt not to harm your planet." A few hundred paces up the track I came across several large bags of household waste strewn across a field. Today, in the same field, I saw four separate piles of junk removed from the insides of a car, probably by a scrap metal dealer getting rid of everything that was non-metallic and dumping it here. "The pandemic will not be over soon", was my instant take. Creating myself a comforting narrative? Don't know. It just feels right.

Returning to yesterday's post about meditation, while in the sauna tonight, I was thinking about why I reject the notion of the Rosary. Simple really - I just don't buy into the 'Holy Mary, mother of God' thing. And yet Swinging Sixties Britain tuned into some traditional Hindu stuff about Ram and Deva and Hari Krishna. Was it just an attraction to an exotic sounding language? Take a tip from David Bowie, and listen to some Silesian folk singing - create an imaginary language, and write Warszawa...

Sula vie dilejo
Sula vie dilejo

Cheli venco deho
Cheli venco deho

Mali, Malio

Helibo seyoman
Helibo seyoman

Cheli venco raero
Cheli venco raero

This time last year:
Chance, complacency, gratitude

This time seven years ago:
The clash of narratives

This time eight years ago:
The Church and democracy

This time nine years ago:
Prime lens or zoom?

This time ten years ago:
Warsaw's failed bid as City of Culture, 2016

This time 11 years ago:
Stalinist downtown at dusk

This time 12 years ago:
The End of an Age of Excess?

This time 13 years ago:
Snowy Easter in England

Saturday, 20 March 2021

Meditation: Lent 2021 - Day 32

'Meditation' dawned on my childhood consciousness as something from the Orient. The Beatles going to India in February 1968 to take part in a transcendental meditation training course at the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was a big media story at the time (I was ten). Something weird and probably to do with drugs and long hair and psychedelia. (It occurs to me now that I assumed at the time that the word 'transcendental' came from the word 'trance', which I was told happens to you when you take drugs.) Meditation, then, had no part of the Catholic religion into which I was growing up. 

And then, in the early 1970s at our Polish parish in West London, there appeared a priest, Ksiądz Andrzej, who opened our minds to the Eastern spiritual traditions during his Lenten lectures to our youth group. There were rumours that he had dabbled with LSD; however to me, he was the most convincing priest I had ever listened to while growing up. During his lectures (rekolekcje młodzieżowe) in 1972 or '73, he explained how meditation worked. "Imagine yourself lying on your back on a sandy beach, facing the the hot sun that's warming your body. Your eyes are closed, but the sun is there. Now imagine that the warmth is the Love of God..." Excellent. Mind opened. No other Catholic priest that I listened to over the decades has had the same profound effect on the development of my spiritual thought.

The meditative approach to religion, while not at all common in the Catholic church as encountered in Poland, has developed in Western monotheistic traditions too. The Eastern concept of the Mantra is closely related to the practice of contemplative repetitive praying or chanting - be it repeating the Jesus Prayer ("Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner") as practised in Orthodox Christianity, or making one's way through the Four Mysteries of the Rosary - a more complex set of prayers - which is the nearest that mainstream Catholicism gets to meditation.

The practice of contemplative or meditative repetitive chanting is well known in Buddhism and Hinduism. The chief difference is the place of the self. Western religions see meditation as the self uniting with God, while remaining a distinct entity. This ties in with the notion of personal redemption for a life well led. To quote the Beach Boys, Hang on to your Ego. Eastern religions, however, see the aim of meditation as becoming absorbed into God, shedding the ego, and thus reaching a higher state of mind. Breathing practices and postures are more important than in Western religion. 

[How the practice of meditation arose across the different religions of the world over time is interesting; the caravanserais of the Silk Road, where Byzantine, Muslim and Buddhist merchants would trade goods and ideas, would have been interesting places to hang out in in pre-Renaissance times!]

I have only in recent years become more interested in meditation as a way of reaching a higher state of enlightenment. It is not easy! To switch the mind off, running all the time, concerned about Things That Need Doing, is incredibly difficult (I say this after half an hour in the sauna, during which time I couldn't switch my train of thoughts onto a quiet siding. Always something keeps intruding.)

My best daily meditation is in the mornings, when taking my blood pressure readings. With the cuff on, I think about the St Mary's churchyard, Perivale, the south side, sloping down to the river, at night. Above the dewy grass covering a simple grave hovers a luminous greenish-blue orb, radiating peacefulness and calm. I fix my mind on that, and breathing. The image just came to me unbidden one morning - and has stayed for a couple of years. And it works; my blood pressure remains optimal (average 104/78 over three readings this morning). But meditation should be for the good of the soul rather than for the body!

More study on the subject of meditation is required within this Lent's blog post series. Meditation and prayer - differences in purpose and practice - coming soon.

From Wikipedia: "Swami Ramdas is said to have attained Nirvana through constant repetition of Om Sri Ram Jai Ram Jai Jai Ram". This mantra is sung continuously from morning to night in the ashram he established, and is chanted throughout the Stooges song We Will Fall (1969).

This time last year:
Refutation II

This time two years ago:
Young Betjeman by Bevis Hillier

This time four years ago:
The mature mind's power over the instincts

This time nine years ago:
Welcome to spring

This time ten years ago:
Giving way or standing firm?

This time 11 years ago:
Summerhouses near Okęcie

This time 12 years ago:
A truly British icon

Friday, 19 March 2021

I'm better than you! Lent 2021: Day 31

Watching the traffic on ulica Puławska pulling up at the lights. A parade of vanity. BMW M8, Porsche Cayenne Turbo S, something orange and loud, Volkswagen Arteon R-Line with huge wheels, the tyres a mere lick of rubber around the rims, a brand new Toyota GR Supra. And lesser traffic. 

I look at the drivers of these show-off vehicles. What is their point? Trying to impress other people? Other people they don't know - random passers-by? How vain, how futile, how... infantile. 

I bask in self-righteousness. For a moment or two, it is I - a pedestrian, car-less, car-free - I am superior! No, really - I am! Right? Not wasting money on a statement ride, no need to resort to such primitive displays to prove my point - not wasting our planet's resources, not turning fossil fuel into greenhouse gases! I... am... BETTER! Qualitatively, morally, ethically, philosophically, inherently BETTER!

* * * * * * * * * * *

We get caught up in this kind of thinking, don't we. Our mammalian biology - our desire to express ourselves in terms of place in our hierarchy - is matched by our human intellect. Now, this intelligence can either be harnessed to make money, which can then be spent on baubles of vanity, or else it can be used to attain a higher understanding of our human condition. Now, I happen to consider the latter to be a more worthwhile use of the human intellect.

Does that make me intrinsically better than those who roar up and down ul. Puławska in their status symbols? Of course they will have their justifications. Except I don't want to hear them!

Or is my self-righteousness merely my own attempt to stratify society into a hierarchy in which I'm near the top - a Philosopher-Sage looking down on the shallow attempts of the show-offs and loud-piped boy-racers trying to make an expensive point? 

Of course it does!

Does that put me on par with the very people that I look down on?

What's the difference between me looking down at them, and them looking down at the drivers of six-year-old Honda Civics or Opel Merivas?

Don't we all tend to do this? Looking down on people with a different worldview to our own - an important element of contemporary culture wars, with the virtue-signalling woke looking down on the racists and sexist and homophobic conservatives, and flag-waving nationalists looking down on lefty degenerates?

We all (including me!) need to rise above our innate mammalian instinct to rank and segregate and categorise into 'better' and 'worse', into 'one of us' and 'one of them', to see our worth in terms of the diminished worth of others. We subconsciously apply rank: inferiors and superiors, and self-hierarchise ourselves. And from this stem our complexes of inferiority and superiority.

At times like this I ponder with a degree of sadness just how much evolution - spiritual evolution we still need to undergo before we can drop our instinctive behavioural ties to lesser life forms.

It's hard for us all - including the self-righteous! Our subjective conscious experience is central to how we see the world - the Universe - around us, so it is natural that we weave a self-serving narrative about our lives in which we justify our existence in terms we can understand - hierarchical terms. However we wish to frame them.

This time last year:
Refutation (I)

This time five years ago:
Before Spin by Keith McDowall

This time six years ago:
Mill town Łódź 

This time seven years ago:
Today, a tipping point in European history

This time eight years ago:
Church and state

This time nine years ago:
Scrub fire in Jeziorki

This time ten years ago:
Airbus A380 visits Warsaw
[yesterday the last one left the Airbus factory]

This time 11 years ago:
Lenten recipe no. 7

This time 12 years ago:
Poland's economy - upturn in sight?

Thursday, 18 March 2021

On being perceptive: Lent 2021, Day 30

For the past 19 years, I've been putting stuff in and out of the dishwasher, opening and closing the dishwasher door, several times a day. But not once in all those years (until yesterday!) did I actually take any conscious notice of the sign on the left-hand edge of the door that reads 'Bosch empfiehlt Calgonit und Finish'. Sure, I saw the logos, took in subconsciously the message (becoming a long-term buyer of Calgonit and Finish), but I never even glanced at that word 'empfiehlt'.  I look it up: Empfiehlt, third-person singular present of empfehlen, 'to recommend'. Related term Empfehlung noun (genitive Empfehlung, plural Empfehlungen), 'recommendation'. So there we are - I'm one German word up on the day. Nor did I notice to the right of the three program buttons a fourth one with a droplets icon - what's that for? Only asked myself this question yesterday - after 19 years!

What does this tell me about my powers of observation?

I have noticed about myself some years ago that I am a slow learner. It takes a while for the penny to drop; but when it does, it tends to drop well, into the right slot. 

I'd observed that my father was blessed with strong powers of observation, event into his final years. Often, I'd be pushing him in his wheelchair, and he'd remark about something he'd spotted (but usually something I didn't - a crescent moon low in the sky, some amusing slogan on a billboard). 

The knack of noticing things, spotting patterns, making connections, where others don't, is, I believe, innate; it's a gift we're born with or not. Being observant is to me synonymous with being aware, being conscious. Spostrzegawczość in Polish - 'perceptiveness'.

Great artists - painters, actors, poets, musicians - notice, they observe - nuances, subtleties that most of us overlook; their observations set off creative thoughts that they can turn into great art. And when observation is coupled to curiosity, intellect and a determination to discover answers - then you have science.

You can train yourself to be more observant, over time; but a mentor is needed to ask you the right questions. "Did you notice...? What does that tell you about...?" My daily walks (I still didn't go out today! Sixth day in a row!) bring about observation of the passing of the seasons, the waxing and waning of the year. Observations such as the stalks of withered goldenrod (nawłoć) only becoming brittle enough to snap in late February/early March, despite the flowers having faded in late August/early September. That observation came last year, and is confirmed this year.

I called my son in London, a person blessed with keen powers of observation, to see if he could remember the wording to the left of the dishwasher door, or the icon to the right of the three program buttons. Before I had a chance to ask, he shot back with a question. "You know the washbasin in the bathroom - have you ever noticed what it says on the side? I only noticed it yesterday...[!]" All those years living at Cleveland Road and indeed, I never noticed. "It says 'Pyramid'!". Wow. I never knew. I Googled it - indeed, Pyramid washbasins can still be picked up at architectural-salvage shops, just like our mid-1970s one. And neither could my son tell me what's on the inside of the dishwasher door other than the three program buttons - but it seems that coincidence (like the Moody one the other day) is stronger than our powers of observation!

This time last year:
Repeatable mystical experiences

This time four years ago:
Jeziorki's temporary level crossing almost complete

This time six years ago:
Swans, dusk, Jeziorki

This time seven years ago:
Joe Biden in Warsaw for talks after Crimea invasion

This time nine years ago:
Motive power for the coal and oil trains that pass Jeziorki

This time 12  years ago:
Sleet, snow, no sign of spring

Wednesday, 17 March 2021

The ups and down of life: Lent 2021, Day 29

I can't really complain, but here's a benchmark from which to look up (or to look down from); today is the fifth day I'm feeling mysteriously under the weather. I've not been out for a walk since Friday, and though I'm not getting worse, neither am I getting better. Outside, the weather is grim (overcast again, temperatures just above freezing, no sign of spring). Social contact is drying up - the general malaise, ennui and Weltschmerz seems to have overcome everyone. People are retreating into their shells, switching on 'survival' mode, going quiet on social media. Motivation is waning, winding down; "Lord, I believe it's rainin' all over the world/I feel like it's rainin' all over the world".

Yesterday marked the first anniversary of the original Polish lockdown. It proved so successful that Poland avoided a first wave, got complacent, opened up, went on holiday, schools and universities came back - and then by 5 November, over 27,000 new cases a day. As many new cases in one day as in three months of lockdown combined. Today, over 25,000 new cases were announced. Since the November peak, 40,000 people have died of Covid and there's no sign of the pandemic relenting, and (unlike the UK), vaccination is going terribly slowly, so we can't even look to that for hope.

Maybe I have a very mild case, or maybe it's something else; general achiness, fatigue, vague cold-type symptoms. Schrodinger's Covid - it is/isn't until you open the box with a test. The word samopoczucie - 'general physical and mental well-being' (PWN-Oxford) - is an example of a useful word having no direct translation into English (a bit like malaise, ennui and Weltschmerz). And here, my samopoczucie is worse than at any time since early February 2019 (five days without a walk).

But things will turn around. They tend to. Bad patches are replaced by better patches; the bad times are there to make you feel gratitude for the good times. Feel gratitude, and you don't get complacent. Get complacent and you fall. Know that good times are followed by bad times - the Wheel of Fortune - but not quite. And here's the trick. To know it's not a wheel, but a spiral. When you end up where you were in the last cycle, you should be one notch up, one meta-level higher - higher in understanding, in a higher state of consciousness, than before.

Funnily enough, since addressing my mind to this post, I've cheered up! 

"This is life. You have to see these things as expressions of God's will - you don't have to like it of course! Things aren't so bad - look at the parking lot, Larry! Just look at that parking lot..." There you go, Rabbi Scott, the First Rabbi from A Serious Man has just come to mind, my spirits raised, I shall go and switch the sauna on.

This time last year:
Seeking a religious symbol with meaning

This time two years ago:
New views

This time three years ago:
Humanity in a Creative Universe: a summary

This time eight years ago:
Always let your conscience be your guide

This time nine years ago:
Lenten recipe with prawns 

This time 12 years ago:
Polish economy - recession thwarted

Tuesday, 16 March 2021

Higher life forms, imagined: Lent 2021, Day 28

"You gotta make way for the Homo superior" sang David Bowie in Oh! You Pretty Things. Now David Bowie was privy to much advanced knowledge and wisdom hitherto hidden from H. sapiens.  As the Man who Fell to Earth, he had some profound insights into our future destiny...

Imagine, then as Bowie did, a better human being. 

Much of the improvement would be around behaviour, rather than form or function (although it is believed that evolution is responsible for more and more humans to reach adulthood without wisdom teeth - ósemki in Polish). There is little biological advantage in being bigger or indeed smaller. And then the big debate as to what extent intelligence is hereditary, and to what extent does one increase it as the result of lifelong learning.

Other than intelligence, the principle improvement that h. sapiens requires is to become kinder, not given to anger, better at getting on with other humans and the environment.

Would evolution point us this way though? Isn't it about survival of the fittest? What's the evolutionary advantage of being kind?

And yet - we are kinder today, kinder than in the Middle Ages, kinder than in Roman times, kinder than in Ancient Greece. Executions and torture are confined to outliers rather than being mainstream punishment as they were. People are generally less violent - not just because of better policing - but because it does not pay to behave villainously in modern urban society. Education, healthcare and equal rights have improved ordinary people's lots enormously, with billions of human lifted out of poverty, able to enjoy a life free of chronic discomfort, hunger, cold.

We are not developing kindness genes - rather, behavioural adaptation is the result of learning. Win-win replaces adversarial thinking ("I can only win if you lose", the Trump mentality).

At the moment, we are experiencing a routine, regular hiccup, a step back after two steps forward, a time of confusion and social unease; it will pass, better times await.

Better times... times without tyrants. Full democracy based on informed electorates, checks and balances, separation of powers, separation of money and power - peaceful coexistence between nations, an end to war, an end to disease.

Imagine that your consciousness is that of a being from another world - another galaxy even - vastly more evolved than humanity. But you are in human form. Brought up among humans, you interact with them, maintaining your cover; you observe them and their world closely, and you compare them. You have the wisdom. You see just how far they still have to go to catch up.

How does your world compare to Planet Earth in the early 21st century?

"Disease - eliminated aeons ago, along with war, poverty and natural disasters. Genetic progress has conquered ageing - and death. Genetic and spiritual progress. They have also tamed hatred and anger, cruelty, greed, laziness - and ego. Extended lifespans and technology allow us to travel vast distances across space, as our experience of time is far different to yours - your centuries, we treat as mere months. We communicate via telepathy - for us, no one holds secrets. We cooperate with each other to a degree that you could not begin to imagine. Learning is all important to us. Learning in depth and in breadth. In time, you too shall see. In time. Not in this life or the next, nor the one after that."

But religion - what is the religion on my planet?

"It is science; it is knowing; it is awareness."

And what is science on your planet?

"It is aiming towards total understanding of the phenomenon you know as consciousness, distributed as it is across the Universe."

This time last year:
Applying Occam's Razor to religion

This time two years ago:
In search of spiritual immortality

This time three years ago:
Knowing and being and intuition

This time four years ago:
Rzeszów - capital of Poland's south-east corner

This time seven years ago:
A tipping point in European history

This time eight years ago:
Random sentiments from London suburbs

This time nine years ago:
Stalinist neo-classicism in Warsaw

This time ten years ago:
A week into Lent

This time 11 years ago:
Afternoon-dusk-night in the city centre

This time 12 years ago:
How I saw these things back then - ALIENS!

This time 13 years ago:
Wetlands waiting for the spring

Monday, 15 March 2021

Consciousness in other creatures: Lent 2021, Day 27

Pet owners will know this; there's no doubt their cats or dogs possess consciousness, awareness. Watching them, observing their behaviour, it's clear our companion animals are sentient. When you make eye contact with a cat or dog, you can be sure that there's something more than just animal instinct and a basic intelligence. The animal is feeling - hopefully happy, secure, loved.

I don't wish to discuss animal intelligence here - as a keeper of several cats, each had different tricks they could perform, some far smarter than others, some quite thick. No - in this post, I wish to dwell on their consciousness - the 'me-ness' of them being them.

Eating mammals is a tricky one for me, morally. A sentient being, aware of being alive, aware of its own existence, has been brought into being with the express purpose of being killed and eaten, its hide used for footwear and clothing. Humane methods of slaughter (a spiral ramp, the animal cannot see what's ahead, the practice of stunning the animal with a bolt gun prior to slaughter) reduce the moral issue for most of us. But let's face it - most meat-eaters will eat meat mindlessly, without regard as to how that steak or burger got to their plate. My bigger issue with eating animals is the environmental cost of rearing meat. 

Hundreds of thousands of generations of cows, pigs and sheep have been brought into existence by man, to be killed and eaten by man. And as such, the conscious lives that they did enjoy before slaughter were in the gift of man. To ban meat farming on the basis of out of concern for a conscious animal would ensure that future generations would not exist; there would not be the possibility of that consciousness ever coming to life, to experience the joys of, for example, being let out into a green field in spring.

At this time of year I give up eating meat, and for the rest of the year I eat it sparingly. I eat cheese and fish in large amounts the year round. Somehow, I have less of an idea of what it could be like to be a fish than land-living creature. Prawns to me come across as automatons of the deep, a life form that just evolved, rather than being owners of any precious sense of awareness.

The function of pets in human society is to provide companionship. Dogs have been with humans far longer than cats - wolves became domesticated while man was still a hunter-gatherer, feeding off scraps, guarding the camp. The cat only became useful after agriculture took hold - to keep rodents out of the granaries. This happened over 150,000 to 180,000 years later. So dogs have evolved alongside humans some 15 times longer than cats have, hence dogs' superior ability to respond to human commands. Not wishing to dwell on feline vs canine intelligence, I will move on to consciousness, which is far harder to quantify or qualify. 

As a concept, consciousness is mightily hard to pin down. It is immediately familiar to us all (philosophical zombies excluded!) yet one of the most challenging mysteries facing science. Its study has become interdisciplinary, engaging the research activities of neurologists, psychologists and psychiatrists, as well as troubling philosophers over the centuries.

Science still has no idea how consciousness emerges from the physical activity of the brain. We can merely conjecture whether or not consciousness can emerge from non-biological systems, such as computers. And yet we 'get' it, we can see it in our pets. Fleeting moments of eye contact when both cat and human understand each other - or is this wishful thinking on our part?

An interesting collection of various religions' beliefs in animal souls here.

[Samopoczucie - no better, but no worse than yesterday or the day before. Day 3.]

This time last year:
The balance between the spiritual and the material

This time two years ago:
Rzeszów and Poznań

This time six years ago:
Spiritual mentors and spiritual leaders

This time seven years ago:

This time eight years ago:
In memory of me

This time nine years ago:
Cleaning sensors on my Nikons

This time ten years ago:
Changing seasons and one's samopoczucie

This time 11 years ago:
Stunning late-winter beauty
[these are among my most gorgeous winter photos ever]

This time 12 years ago:
Lenten fare - Jeziorki gumbo

This time 13 years ago:
Digging up Dawidowska